Workshops - The DSLR Filmmaker’s Handbook: Real-World Production Techniques, Second Edition (2015)

The DSLR Filmmaker’s Handbook: Real-World Production Techniques, Second Edition (2015)

Chapter 15. Workshops


We thought it might be fun to cover a few specialty areas before you head out and start shooting. In case you want to shoot a scene in a pool or in the ocean, you will need some knowledge of underwater photography and video. Additionally, you might need to know how to rig cameras to a car and shoot coverage in a moving car (or fake the movement when you aren’t able to shoot it on the road). Lastly, we will recap changing camera speeds, switching shutter angles, and creating the cinematic look with your DSLR cameras.

A Brief Guide to Underwater Cinematography

This section on underwater photography/cinematography was graciously contributed by Daniel Brown.

I can’t think of too many situations less conducive to photography than being underwater (perhaps being on the surface of the moon or inside an active volcano). Yet thousands of people do this as a hobby. The subtle but distinct addition of water affects every aspect of the photographic process, from the lenses to the photographer. Conveniences you take for granted on land are suddenly yanked away. Even if you’ve mastered photography on the surface, you have a whole new set of challenges awaiting you underwater.

I am referring mainly to scuba diving rather than snorkeling. Although snorkeling is a great way to get your feet wet (so to speak) in underwater photography, the best stuff is farther down. In fact, most critters stay clear of the surface. I’m also assuming that your camera allows for at least basic controls over settings such as ISO. Even modest point-and-shoot models usually allow for changing at least this setting, while others allow changes to shutter speed and aperture and have some subtle differences when the flash is fired. (I’m not going to talk about a disposable underwater film camera—for so many reasons.)

Before we kick off the official tips, one of the main questions I’m asked by people not familiar with underwater photography is whether we use a special camera. Most of the time, it is not special. It wouldn’t be cost-effective for any major camera manufacturer to make an underwater-specific camera. A few consumer cameras are “waterproof,” but that proof usually wears off at about 15 feet and so is mainly targeted at snorkelers and people with pools.

Most underwater rigs are simply standard cameras enclosed in a watertight housing made of acrylic or aluminum (Figure 15-1). The housing is a strong defense against salt water getting in your camera, but it must be sealed with care. As the old saying goes, “Water finds a way.”


Figure 15-1: A Canon 40D inside a Sea & Sea housing with a wide-angle (dome) port, two Inon Z-40 strobes, and Ultralight strobe arms

Remember Where You Are

At the risk of stating the obvious, no photographic opportunity is worth gambling with your life or even a sliver of your health. I know several people who have done stupid things underwater (one of whom is extremely lucky to be alive) because they either ignored fundamental diving lessons or briefly forgot their priorities underwater. I’m not talking about accidents or equipment failure; I’m talking about people who knew that their ability to surface safely was in jeopardy and chose to stay down anyway and get “that shot.” For that choice, a few got to spend time in a decompression chamber—a tedious, embarrassing, and astoundingly expensive affair (one for which few insurance companies are willing to pay). In short, make safety your first priority for yourself as well as those around you.

I also hear time and time again rookie divers say something to the effect of “The water is so warm; I don’t even bother with a wetsuit.” Meanwhile, they’re surrounded by seasoned divers wearing at the very least a dive skin but more commonly a 3 mm wetsuit. Here’s why.

Your body doesn’t respond well to even a 4-degree drop in temperature. In fact, a 4-degree drop is where the classifications of hypothermia start. Even in the warmest water on Earth, a 3 mm wetsuit is a good idea. While I’ve rarely been too warm underwater, it does happen. In those rare instances, I can force water down into my wetsuit to cool off. (There are other reasons to do this that I won’t mention. Let’s just say the market for used wetsuits is really small.) It’s like wearing a sweater; you can always take it off if you have it, but if you don’t have it, you can’t put it on.

The other reason seasoned divers wear a wetsuit in warm water is that plenty of things in the ocean can sting you, and a few even bite (look up trigger fish). Some of the stinging ones are hard to see and are discovered only when you accidentally brush against them; jellyfish and the aptly named fire coral (because that’s what it feels like when you touch it) are just a few.

Want an Example?

There is a statue just off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, of Jesus Christ in about 20 feet of water, a gift from the Cressi family of Genoa, Italy, for all of the preservation efforts being undertaken in Florida (Figure 15-2). Plenty of rookie divers come to Key Largo every year, armed with point-and-shoot cameras. It’s natural that they would want to take a picture of each other with the statue, but a few go so far as sitting on Christ’s shoulders. Because the water is so warm, they go diving in just shorts and T-shirts and, unfortunately, don’t realize that his shoulders and neck are covered in fire coral. As you can imagine, they have a long, painful, and awkward two days to two weeks ahead of them.


Figure 15-2: Statue of Jesus Christ off the coast of Key Largo

With the precautions about safety out of the way, it’s time for some general tips about photography. This is my take on the top tips anyone who shoots underwater pictures needs to know regardless of the camera being used.

Get Closer

If you don’t read anything else in this chapter and remember only one piece of advice about underwater photography, this is it. It’s the one tip you’ll hear over and over again in every single underwater photography class by every speaker on the topic. Its impact is immediate and downright magical in effectiveness. It remedies so many photographic ailments at once, and it’s comically simple. Ready?

Get closer.

That’s it. Those two words. If you do that one thing, every aspect of your photography will improve, period. Get closer. When you think you’re ready to take a picture of a subject, go for it. Then get closer and take another shot, and compare the results later.

Got it? OK. Then, just when you think you’re close enough:

Get closer.

“How close?” you ask. Ridiculously close. Ludicrously close. In most cases, you should be able to reach out and touch whatever you’re photographing (though generally, you shouldn’t). Whether it’s a critter the size of a grain of rice or the side of the U.S.S.Sunkenlongago, get close to it. You obviously can’t touch an entire wreck at the same time, but you should be able to touch the point closest to you.

Why So Close? Where Do I Begin?

With photography on land, it’s easy to take distances for granted. During the day, you can just whip out your camera and snap a photo of something directly in front of you or several hundred feet away.

Underwater, especially below about 15 feet, the need to get close to your subject becomes absolutely critical. I’ll list most of the reasons in a moment, but for now just remember to get closer than you think you need to and, with some subjects (sharks, for example), closer than you might feel comfortable with.

Proximity to your subject helps with a large number of issues:

· Water is 800 times denser than air. While light still travels through water, it has a tougher time.

· There is a lot of “stuff” in sea water including a host of tiny critters and particles from various sources (some of which you don’t want to know about). The technical term for this is backscatter, referring to any particulate matter between your lens and the subject. And, of course, there’s salt.

· You lose roughly one stop for every foot you are from your subject. Don’t expect to be 10 feet away and just crank up your strobes. It doesn’t work that way (I’ll talk about strobes in just a minute).

Getting closer simply reduces the amount of water between you and your subject and transforms your images in a way that’s hard to fully quantify. Your photos will be astoundingly better when you learn to get closer.

Figure 15-3 is three photographs taken seconds apart. All have the same settings; the only real difference is my distance from the subject. So, get closer. Trust me.


Figure 15-3: Photos of the same fish taken three different times just seconds apart. The only difference between the images is the distance I was from the subject.

Bring a Flash, Ideally Two

A flash (a better name is strobe) provides an abundant, white light source regardless of the depth. Ambient light might still be there for you in the background, but only white light can help show the profound color palette normally hidden in the ocean. Ambient light also doesn’t do much when your subject is under a ledge or wreck.

I mentioned bringing two strobes, and the temptation is to think this is simply for “horsepower”; double the strobes means double the amount of light being cast on your subject, right? In fact, the role of the second strobe is usually a fill light to fill in where ambient light might not be available.

When positioning strobes, remember that you are most accustomed to seeing light from above. The sun is a prime example; it rarely shines “up” unless you’re standing on a mirror, and most indoor lighting is also from above. Hence, the most common lighting approach is to have the main strobe (usually the one set to the higher output level) aimed down on your subject and the other strobe (usually set to a lower level than the main strobe) aimed from the side to fill the areas that would be left in shadow by the main strobe.

One last tidbit about strobes is diffusion. For larger subjects (the side of a wreck, for example), you want those strobes punching out as much light as they can as far as they can without blowing out your main subject. For macro photography, a softer light source is generally better. Most underwater strobes include at least one diffuser, sometimes two. With each level of diffusion, you also sacrifice a bit of light (diffusers often have the value etched on them: 1 stop, 1.5 stops, and so on), but when you’re 4 inches from your subject, the softer light is worth the sacrifice.

How Light Behaves Underwater—Ambient Light vs. Strobe

We’ve discussed the passage of light horizontally through water; now I’ll talk about its passage vertically.

Ambient light is basically another term for sunlight (since few other light sources can light up the ocean). Near the surface, you can snap shots of just about anything without having to think too much.

However, descending to just 15 feet changes the lighting conditions; everything is now slightly more blue-green than it was at the surface. At 30 feet, there may be enough light to take photos, but all that water above you is filtering out more light, particularly red light. Ocean water acts like a giant cyan filter (cyan is a fancy term for sky-blue), and by about 60 feet, most of the red light has been absorbed, even on a bright, sunny day with the sun directly overhead.

With this in mind, something I said a moment ago is technically incorrect. There isn’t more blue-green light; there’s less red light, which makes red subjects difficult to see. In fact, if you were to photograph a red apple and a black eight-ball at this depth, you’d be hard-pressed to see a difference in color.

Apart from the loss of color, you’re also losing light overall. A good rule of thumb is that you lose one f-stop of sunlight for every 10 feet you descend. In other words, for every 10 feet, you lose half your light. Here’s an example for those of you savvy with f-stops and shutter speeds (if not, you’ll want to be).

Let’s say you’re using what is known as the sunny 16 rule, which says that if you set your camera to f/16, your shutter speed for a photo on a bright, sunny day will be the reciprocal of your ISO setting. If ISO is currently set to 100 and you’re at f/16, set your shutter to 1/100 of a second, and you’ll get a good exposure (more or less). If your ISO was 200, you’d set shutter speed to 1/200, and so on.

OK, your camera is set to f/16, 1/100 of a second shutter speed, and ISO 100.

Now you hop in the water. You can take a picture of anything near the surface being lit by sunlight. However, if you drop 10 feet, your settings are now wrong.

In practical terms, you’ll be exposing for one f-stop more light than you now have. You need to change one of those variables to expose correctly for your new depth. If you drop your aperture to f/11, you’ll have twice the amount of light coming in the lens, and you’ll (essentially) be back to where you were at the surface. (I’m ignoring depth of field for the moment.)

Output Power

Although strobes have about twice the output underwater of a normal strobe, they are still subject to the same physics as your camera. Water is still 800 times denser than air, and all the stuff in the water that affects what your camera sees also affects what your strobes illuminate.

Remember that “get close” tip from earlier? It comes into play again here.

Light from your strobe actually needs to travel twice the distance you are from your subject. If you’re 4 feet away, light from your strobe needs to travel through 4 feet of water from strobe to subject and then 4 feet again back to your camera. For every inch you get closer, light from your strobes is traveling 2 inches less.

So, get close.


There’s another fundamental reason to use a flash that has less to do with the amount of light it produces and more to do with how quickly it produces it.

A strobe can freeze motion much better than your shutter. While your shutter speed will be from, say, 1/30 of a second to 1/250 of a second, a strobe fires in the neighborhood of 1/6000 of a second. It takes a pretty fast critter to outrun a strobe. It may be hustling to get away from you, but it’ll look frozen in the resulting picture.

The Two Flavors of Light

I’ve discussed ambient light (that provided by the sun) and artificial light (the strobes you brought with you). Now I will discuss how you control each of them.

The following factors affect ambient light:

· Time of day

· Surface conditions of the water

· Amount and type of particulate matter in the water

· Whether the weather is sunny or cloudy

I like to think of ambient light as a faucet that runs at a constant rate. For any given shooting condition, you can’t do a whole lot about the amount of ambient light available to you; you can’t “adjust the tap,” so to speak. However, you can control how large the opening is to the container you’re filling (aperture setting) and how long you leave the top of the container open (the shutter speed). ISO, in this case, behaves a lot like the aperture setting.

On your camera, your ISO setting, aperture setting, and shutter speed control how much ambient light hits your sensor.

The following factors affect artificial light:

· Strobe power

· Strobe to subject distance

· Aperture

· ISO setting

Notice that shutter speed has fallen off the list. Why? If a strobe fires at 1/6000 of a second, it really doesn’t matter whether your shutter was set to 1/30 of a second or 1/250 of a second; all the light that will come from your strobe has already happened.

To use the faucet analogy, a strobe is like a flash flood with a specific amount of water behind it. You can’t control how much is delivered, but you can control how much you catch.

At first glance, it seems like it would be tough to control ambient vs. strobe light:

1. Ambient Controlled by aperture, ISO, shutter speed

2. Strobe Controlled by strobe power, distance, ISO, aperture

Actually, you can control strobe and ambient light separately; it just takes a bit of planning.

In Figure 15-4, there’s a pretty good balance between artificial light and ambient light, but if I wanted the water to be lighter, I’d simply decrease the shutter speed.

If I wanted a little less light to retain detail in the tank, I could do one of the following:

· Decrease strobe power.

· Close the aperture and decrease the shutter speed.

Wait, what? Let’s break that down.


Figure 15-4: “One fish, two fish”: 1/180, f/6.7, ISO 200

Aperture controls both ambient and strobe light, while shutter speed controls only ambient light. Closing the aperture one stop halves the amount of light entering the camera. Decreasing (slowing) the shutter speed doubles it again, so the net result is the same—half the amount of ambient light for twice the amount of time. However, the aperture is smaller, so there is less light coming in from the strobes. Since the strobes fire so fast, they’re not affected by the change in shutter speed, so the foreground simply gets darker while the water in the background remains basically the same.

If you understood that after reading it only once, you’re ahead of me.

Shoot Up

Here is another simple but amazingly effective tip for better shots: shoot up. Rather, get as low as or lower than your subject and aim the camera up at it. I’m not really sure why this makes such a profound difference with underwater photographs, but it does. Having water behind an animal helps emphasize where it is and tells the story a bit better than a fish hovering in front of a reef.

This angle can be tricky for a flounder or stingray that likes to sit on the bottom. In that case, get down on its level and shoot horizontally. The beauty of their camouflage is highlighted nicely when all you see is a bulging pair of eyes from the sand.

This photo of a scorpion fish would never make a good gallery wall image, but it’s a good example of what happens when you shoot across at something resting on the bottom (Figure 15-5). From above, it’s pretty well camouflaged and far less interesting as a subject (Figure 15-6).

In short, don’t take the picture a human would; take the picture another fish would.


Figure 15-5: Scorpion fish from below


Figure 15-6: Scorpion fish from above


A camera changes your buoyancy in the water. Nearly all cameras are negatively buoyant, which, if you’re a certified diver, you should know means it will try to sink if you let go of it. You might think that a camera that is slightly positive would be better (should you let go of it, you’d want your investment to rise to the surface rather than sinking), but a positively buoyant camera is very difficult to handle.

Bringing a full camera rig is like having an extra two pounds of weight in your buoyancy control (BC) vest or weight belt, and unfortunately, it’s in your hands rather than around your waist. This makes for some awkward moments when the upper half of your body sinks and your fins are sticking straight up in the air like a prawn in a cocktail dish. The remedy here is to simply become an experienced diver and really dial in your buoyancy before bothering with a camera.

However, I’d argue that a camera can help you become a better diver.

I remember first learning to dive and watching our dive master swim effortlessly with her arms folded against her body. Meanwhile, I was flailing around, kicking with my feet and frantically paddling with my hands, looking like someone trying to escape a car they’d just driven into a lake. I improved a bit over time as experience kicked in, but something magical happened when I started holding a camera: I couldn’t use my hands anymore and began to rely almost entirely on my legs. It was a great lesson.

You Need Two Lenses Only If You Have the Option of Changing Them Out


Figure 15-7: When viewing a pencil partially in the water, it can look disconnected or distorted.

You can leave your telephoto lens on the boat. You won’t be photographing (successfully anyway) a subject 100 feet from you. Oh, I know it’s your first time diving with a whale and you want to capture the moment, but for all the earlier reasons, zooming just doesn’t work.

You’ll mostly shoot two kinds of subjects:

· Wide-angle when there’s a relatively large subject and you need to be close to it

· Macro when there’s a small subject and you need to be even closer to it

I’ve seen people do quite well with a 60 mm macro lens and a 10 mm–17 mm wide-angle fish-eye lens (an ironic name since it’s very difficult to actually shoot a fish eye with one).

Here’s the trick: everything is about one-third closer underwater. Rather, everything appears to be about one-third closer underwater. Hold your hand out in front of you underwater, and it looks like your arm shrank. A pencil in a glass of water looks distorted for the same reason (Figure 15-7).

Figure 15-8 shows another example: a ruler half submerged in water. Note the closer appearance of the underwater portion.

This is good news and bad news.

The good news is that 60 mm macro lens I mentioned earlier is now more like a 90 mm lens underwater; you get an extra 30 mm closer for free.

The bad news is that a super-wide-angle lens is now essentially cropped by one-third because of that same refraction. Instead of seeing a wreck from end to end, you now see only the middle two-thirds.

To compensate for this, most higher-end camera enclosures offer something called a dome port, which is a curved piece of either glass (expensive) or polycarbonate (cheaper) that sits in front of the lens and forms the front window of the camera housing (Figure 15-9). By curving the water in this way, the refraction properties are undone, essentially subtracting the distortion. Everything underwater now looks to be the same distance away as it does on land.


Figure 15-8: Look at the ruler below the water, and notice how it appears closer than the part of the ruler still out of the water.


Figure 15-9: Notice how the dome port corrects the part of the ruler under the water so it more or less appears the same as the part out of the water.

It’s the same subject, but the dome port undoes the distortion exhibited with the flat port.

The other little tidbit here is that dome ports allow for these over/under shots (also called splits) where the lower half of the photograph is underwater and the other half is out of the water. A dome port helps this in two distinct ways:

· It does away with that annoying distortion so that someone standing in the water has their torso and legs the same distance away from the camera.

· The larger surface area of the port makes it easier to hold the camera in such a way that half of the port is out of the water and half is in the water. Hence, smaller waves don’t overwhelm the shot. You get a much greater margin for error, but these are still tricky shots to get.

Focus. Not the Camera, You.

Most people want a series of quick shots from their dive—a chronicle of the event much like going to the zoo. That’s a fine goal, but simply documenting the creatures you encounter isn’t nearly as rewarding as taking a truly great photograph of them. There are “bonus points” if you can manage to photograph them exhibiting some sort of behavior—a fish tending to her eggs or stopping at a “cleaning station,” for example.

Figure 15-10 is a good example of a behavior shot. Although it looks like the butterfly fish on the right is about to be devoured, the truth is that the blue stripe grunt is opening its mouth to be cleaned by the butterfly fish. I waited for about 20 minutes to get this shot.


Figure 15-10: The butterfly fish appears to be moments away from being eaten by the blue stripe grunt.

Some animals are plentiful and will hold still for (almost) as long as you want them to. Others just take off and don’t come back, or they retreat into their hiding places and wait until they think it’s safe to come back out. Those critters take some patience and, in a few cases, a bit of cunning to become gallery material.

The lesson here is to focus. Pick a subject—one subject—on a particular dive, and take the best picture you can of that subject. Stick with it, and experiment for as long as the critter will let you. Change your position and see how it affects the photograph. Can you incorporate layers into the shot (in other words, something in the foreground, your subject, something behind it, and some water surface ripples)? Is there a better way to frame the animal? Certainly, any time two animals are interacting is worth working for a while. Got a great shot? Wonderful! Go get a better one.

As you approach a subject, keep shooting. Take the first shot you think you’d be proud of; then keep getting closer and take another shot. Keep getting closer and shooting. I’ll bet your best shot is the one just before it runs away.

The Manual Method

This comes as a shock to most people, but cameras weren’t specifically designed to shoot underwater. With that comes some bad news; the auto functions on your camera aren’t likely to work. To successfully shoot underwater, you’ll need to use . . . (dramatic music here) manual mode!

I can hear the shrieks and cries now, but hear me out.

I became a much better photographer after shooting underwater. I was forced to understand nearly every function my camera had to offer. The lure, frankly, was the photographs that other people were taking who did understand all those functions. Being surrounded by other people who are getting great results is a very strong form of peer pressure.

Learning to shoot in manual mode was almost as frustrating as learning to play golf, but I kept at it. Gradually, the concepts became clear.


Unlike manual mode, autofocus is your friend depending on your camera. Your odds of being able to determine whether a subject is in focus are pretty small given the timeframes involved and your ability to see the back of your camera. This is one case where technology has a distinct advantage over humans.

The default focus mode is fine when you’re just getting started. The default is for the camera to focus on whatever is in the center of the frame. As you become more familiar with your camera (and if your camera supports it), you can change where the camera will “look” for focus. Generally speaking, you want the eye of the animal to be in focus.

Obviously, this requires some preparation before shooting. Which reminds me . . . .

Preparation before Shooting

The idea here is to be prepared to shoot anything in the situation you’re in. Unsure of your settings? Take a picture, look at that histogram, make adjustments, and then take another one. It costs you nothing to be prepared, which is yet another brilliant aspect of digital cameras.

Shooting under or inside a wreck? Adjust accordingly. Take a few snapshots of something that doesn’t move, and you’ll be ready for something that does.

However, there is beauty in such shots of unpreparedness.

In 2002, I was on a small island in the Caribbean called Bonaire (which is among the “ABC” islands; Aruba and Curacao are the more prominent islands). I was still logging my first 20 dives or so and was armed with a very modest digital camera by today’s standards.

For whatever reason, I turned away from the gently sloping wall and gazed out into the open ocean behind me. Not 10 feet away from me, swimming from right to left, was a small manta ray, probably 4 to 5 feet in diameter. I was both speechless and frantic to get a picture of it. I snapped two or three images (it was, of course, well out of range of the built-in flash, so the pictures won’t be going on my wall), but the memory was recorded. I’d seen my first manta.

Later, in the dive shop, I mentioned the encounter to the man working behind the counter, which he laughed off as impossible. In a thick Dutch accent, he noted, “I’ve been here thirty-five years, and I’ve never seen one. I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t a manta.” Recalling that I was still holding the camera that contained the evidence, I said, “Oh yeah? Then what is . . . this?” There, on the back of my camera, was proof that I’d witnessed what I said I had and something he hadn’t. No one could quite figure out what the manta was doing so far from home, but his disbelief fell away in an instant and turned to sheer envy.

Pre-Dive Prep

Other kinds of prep involve what to do before you even get in the water. Electronics don’t like to get wet, and this is especially true with salt water. Few substances can so quickly, thoroughly, and permanently ruin your equipment like salt water.

You should be warned that every now and then camera housings fail. This is most often because of user error (though equipment occasionally fails on its own). Most of the time, a “flood” happens because something interfered with the seal keeping water out. In one case, a very expensive camera I was using was ruined because the O-ring that forms the seal was partly sticking out the bottom of the housing. Water went in so fast, the camera never had a chance. The good news is that it wasn’t my camera; the better news is that the owner is the one who sealed the housing. It’s a bit like the mentality of packing your own parachute. If something goes wrong, you can’t blame anyone else.

Follow the advice of the company or person who sold you the housing. Clean and lubricate O-rings every time you open the housing. Seal the housing in a clean environment where you can clearly see any piece of lint, hair, sand, and so on that might sit along that O-ring.

Then, before climbing in the water, take one last step; dunk your camera in a fresh water tank. If you see a small, steady stream of bubbles, lift the housing quickly but calmly out of the water and keep it upright. Have someone else open the back of the housing and get the water out.

Be aware that rinse tanks on dive boats and on the docks are usually also rinsed with dive masks, and the antifog agent that’s so great on your mask does bad things to O-rings in a camera housing. The larger tanks for rinsing gear are slightly safer just because of dilution, but it’s best to stick with fresh water that’s free of antifog agents.


One of the greatest features of digital cameras over film is that they allow you to do the following:

· See the current scene on the screen on the back of the camera

· See the previous photograph on the screen on the back of the camera

That’s awesome . . . on land.

But here you are, 60 feet down surrounded by blue-green water. The screen on the back of your camera is under a clear plastic panel, both of which are reflecting ambient light back at you. Then there’s the 7 to 12 inches of salt water between you and the back of the camera housing and the piece of glass that comprises the mask you’re wearing. As it turns out, not one of these things improves viewing conditions.

Whenever you view a photograph underwater, it always looks red. Why? Because your eyes cleverly adjust to the blue-green ambient light that surrounds you. After a while, the green environment seems normal. Hence, anything lit with normal lighting now looks too red by comparison. With that in mind, how can you possibly use the back of your camera as an accurate indicator of what you actually photographed?

Well, in terms of cropping, you can, but as for exposure, there’s no chance. Some cameras can show you areas that are blown out (too bright for the camera to capture) or underexposed (too dark for the camera to capture). This is another instance where a single tool transformed my photography as much as getting closer: I turned on the histogram preview function in my camera.

For those who aren’t familiar with histograms, think of them as a census of your image. How many bright pixels do you have, and how many of them are so bright that the information in them may get blown out? Likewise, how many dark pixels are there, and how close to being too dark are they? Dark subjects on dark backgrounds will have a large number of dark pixels. Light subjects on light backgrounds will have a large number of light pixels. A histogram will tell you when pixels of either type are in jeopardy of losing detail.

Most digital photography books talk about an ideal (if rare) histogram with the bulk of the information near the center and the rest evenly distributed on either side, sloping elegantly to zero as they reach pure black and pure white.

The reality is that some perfectly exposed photographs will have odd, or even seemingly incorrect, histograms. A black cat sitting on a black car, for example, will have a largely dark histogram. Likewise, a snowman in the middle of a snowy field will have a mostly white histogram. What does a good histogram look like?

Well, it depends. (Don’t you hate that phrase?)

Underwater, it’s difficult to know whether an image was exposed correctly if you can’t see the histogram. Likewise, it’s tough to know whether a histogram is appropriate if you can’t see the image from which it was measured. In short? Turn on the histogram function so you can see both the image and its histogram. You can thank me later.

So, there you have it. Those are some modest, if hopefully helpful, tips from someone who spent seven years taking bad photos underwater. OK, I still take bad photos, but at least now I can say why they are bad.

Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown discovered Adobe Photoshop in 1990, long before he really discovered a camera. He performed high-end retouching projects for Apple, Adobe, Sun Microsystems, and Revo Sunglasses. In 1997, he discovered photography and began to manipulate his own photographs; shortly after that he joined Adobe Systems and taught classes, seminars, and workshops on Photoshop and digital imaging. In 2000, Daniel was invited to speak at The Digital Shootout in Monterey, the first photo competition for underwater photographers using digital cameras, and he took up underwater photography in 2006. He has cotaught weeklong seminars with Stephen Frink and has given classes at Digital Shootout competitions and at the Backscatter Underwater Photography store on Cannery Row in Monterey.

Rigging a Car

Shooting scenes with a car or in a car can be exciting, painful, dangerous, or rewarding—or probably all of these. When you are driving a car, your attention (or, more accurately, the actor’s attention) should be solely focused on driving the vehicle. All other elements—acting, making eye contact, using props, or anything else your actors or crew members are doing—make driving a car more dangerous.

Safety First

There are many ways to be able to shoot in a car or to shoot a chase scene and get great results without endangering any of your cast or crew. But at all times, make sure safety is the first priority.

Two terms that are good to be aware of are picture car and camera car. A picture car is any car that will appear on screen. These are usually the nicest car you own, a car someone in your family or group of friends owns, or one that you can rent. Camera cars are any vehicles that the camera and crew are in that never appear on screen but are needed to get the coverage you need for your scene.

Interior Dialogue Scenes

Most movies have at least one scene that takes place inside a car. This can range from a simple dialogue scene between two characters to a single actor driving late at night. The key is knowing the best ways to get the coverage you need and to make the scene as real and interesting as possible.

Angles for Shooting Actors in a Car

There are only so many ways you can shoot actors who are inside a car. There are limitations as to where the actors can be placed and how far they can move or be moved.

Shooting through the Front Windshield

Let’s start with the standard: shooting directly through the front windshield. This requires the camera to be mounted to the hood of the car and have the lens pointed directly at the actors in the car. You will immediately notice that the windshield itself acts as a giant reflector. The brighter the sun, the more reflection you will see, and the harder it will be to see the actors inside the car.

One option you have is to shoot the car in the shade. When there is little to no sun, then you don’t have much, if any, reflection off the windshield. If the car is moving, it may be hard to find a road that is totally shaded, so find a road with a lot of mature trees that provide dappled lighting on the street. This is a mixture of shade and sunlight that gives you reduced but still present reflection; it allows the audience to see through the window, but the reflection helps enhance the feeling of the moving car. Another option is to shoot with a polarizing filter. This can help reduce the reflection or glare but doesn’t always eliminate the reflection altogether.

The first option for shooting through the front windshield is to directly mount the camera to the hood of the car. You will have a variety of options ranging from suction cups (Figure 15-11) to a hood dolly mount to attach your camera to get your coverage (Figure 15-12). You can simply mount the camera in a fixed position and let the camera catch the action inside the car. If you use a dolly mount or have the car loaded onto a trailer bed, you can actually have an operator control and get movement into the shot instead of it simply being static.


Figure 15-11: Camera mounted on a single suction cup mount on the front of the car


Figure 15-12: Camera mounted on a secure dolly mount on the front of the vehicle

Another option is to shoot from a lead car toward the front of the picture car. You can mount the camera in a fixed position on the back of the vehicle, you can have the cameraperson operate the camera handheld, or you can mount a tripod in the back of a truck/van and operate off a good tripod (Figure 15-13). A simple and cheap option is using a beanbag. This can be any sort of small beanbag or beanbag-like object that is soft and somewhat moldable. Make a little depression and rest your camera right on top (Figure 15-14). Then you can go ahead and fasten the beanbag and camera directly to the hood, and you have a cheap and fast way to set up your camera.


Figure 15-13: Tripod weighted down with sandbags in the back of a pickup truck to shoot the picture car from the front


Figure 15-14: Camera resting in a beanbag ready to be strapped down for the shot

Shooting through the Side Window

You have two options when shooting through the side window. You can choose to frame the car door so the audience sees the outside of the car, or you can frame only your actor to give the audience a more intimate view of your actor. Both need to be done from the outside of the car so you have enough distance to actually keep your actor in the frame. Another choice you have is whether to have the windows up or down. Again, you could be dealing with reflections if you are shooting through a side window, especially if you are in direct sunlight. So you can view your choice as mostly an aesthetic one and what makes it easiest to get the shot you want. If you shoot with the windows open and are driving down the freeway, it may be impossible for you to get usable audio of the actors live and you’ll force yourself into an ADR situation.

When you chose to shoot through the side window, you limit the number of choices you have to mount your camera. You can mount the camera to the side of the car pointing in the side window (Figure 15-15), you can shoot out of the side of a minivan or another camera vehicle, or you can shoot from a tripod with the car parked while you are using rear-screen projection to simulate that the car is driving.

Shooting from the Passenger Seat

If you have an actor driving the car with no passengers, you can shoot the actor from the passenger seat. This will allow you to set the camera more or less where the passenger would be sitting and allows the audience to feel like they are riding in the car with the driver. You can accomplish this either by using a longer lens on a camera mounted on the exterior of the car or by rigging the camera inside the car.


Figure 15-15: Camera mounted to the driver’s window that will capture the profile of the lead actor while driving

You have three main options when shooting from the passenger seat from a car. First, you can have your cameraperson handhold the camera and shoot in the direction of the driver. Second, you can mount the camera on the exterior of the car and shoot an over-the-shoulder or two-shot of the main two actors in the front seat. Finally, you can mount your camera to the dashboard of the car, space permitting, of course.

Shooting from the Driver’s Seat

You have two ways to achieve this type of shot. The first may be too expensive and not available for many low-budget productions. It calls for a trailer to actually physically carry the picture car. This means any actors in the car do not need to drive the vehicle but at the same time the background will be moving as if the car is being driven since the tow car is moving the picture car on the trailer. If you have access to this sort of setup, that is great, and you can mount the camera directly in the driver’s seat. If you don’t have a trailer to carry the car, then you will be forced to mount the camera on the exterior of the driver’s car door. If you need to frame out the driver and show only the passenger, then use a long lens and make sure the angle on the camera is such that the driver isn’t in the shot.

Shooting from the driver’s seat can be a bit trickier. If you are shooting on a low budget and you have to get coverage while your actors are physically driving the car, then you really have only two options. You can rig the camera to the outside door of the driver’s side, or you can rig the camera to the dashboard.

Shooting from the Backseat

Whether or not you have an actor in the backseat, you can mount a camera in the rear of the car for a variety of angles. You can choose to frame both the driver and passenger seats in the same shot, shoot the driver or just the passenger, or shoot the eyes in the rearview mirror. How much room you have, what angle you are trying to frame, or other practical issues will determine how you rig your camera.

There are a few different ways you can rig a camera to shoot into the front seat. First, you can handhold the camera, with some sort of support rig, and manually operate the camera. This allows you to control where the camera is pointing and to adjust for the actors’ movements during the scene. This can be tricky because it is easy for this to end up looking overly shaky and more like you shot it from the side of a boat if the road is rough or if the car is turning a lot. Test shooting this way to make sure you can achieve the look you want with your camera setup.

Second, you can rig the camera with some grip equipment to the back of the headrests of the car. Then you can angle your camera and get a profile of the actor in the driver’s seat or the passenger seat.

Lastly, you can go with the old tried-and-true tripod (Figure 15-16). If you have enough room to put a tripod, go ahead and set it up. Use sandbags or something to help add weight to the bottom and keep the tripod from tipping during the turns while driving (Figure 15-17).


Figure 15-16: Tripod positioned in the back of a pickup truck


Figure 15-17: Add weight to the bottom of your tripod to help keep it from tipping. A couple of sandbags will be perfect.

Movement out the Window

One of the main reasons for shooting in a car is for the added movement of the background outside the car. Without the movement outside the window, the car appears not to be moving or moving very slowly. You should be aware of a few tricks. The first is if you shoot with wider lenses, then your background won’t move as fast. This can help make it look like the car is moving slower. If you are driving slowly and need it to appear like the car is going faster, then you can use a long lens or find a road with objects such as hedges that are closer to the car to help add the perception of speed in the background.

If you are shooting at night and so you can’t see out of the window, you can shoot when the car is either parked or moving. However, if you choose to shoot the car as if it were driving at night, you will need to add some lights that will periodically move through the shot. For instance, if you really are driving at night, you will from time to time drive under a street lamp. A small spotlight can be rotated so the intensity starts soft, grows, and disappears, and the audience will be tricked into thinking the car is moving and not that you just moved the light.

Another trick is if you can frame your shot so on one side of the car you see only the skyline (this works only if you have a clear blue sky) and you can’t see out of the back window. Then if you shoot through the front window and only from one side of the car, you can have the car parked and make it seem as if it is moving. Open the windows and put a fan on the actors to simulate the wind in their hair. Since the audience cannot see anything that would move in the background, the simple wind blowing through their hair will be all you need to sell the movement of the car. Just find an establishing shot where you can shoot the car driving with your actors and show the blue sky in the background (this can be shot on a tripod) that can be cut in.

In the good old days of Hollywood, they used to use a system called rear projection where they would simply project a moving background onto a screen and let the actors play their scene in a parked car. You might wonder why you would resort to this when it is so easy to mount a DSLR camera today. Well, there are a few reasons why this may be a good choice for your production. First, just as in the old days, your actors won’t be driving while acting, so it is a safe way to get your scene. Second, you can film, or get stock footage, of a location that is far more cinematic than the streets where you live. Lastly, perhaps you borrowed your uncle’s classic car, and the only rule he gave you is you can’t drive it on the road.

There are two great ways you might be able to get the rear projection to work for you. First, get a large projector screen that allows for rear-screen projection and an LCD or DLP video projector. Get one large enough to fill the background of your scene and turn it on: instant background motion. Second, if you have a large-screen TV, you can use that as your rear-screen projector. Hook up your DVD or connect your video camera directly to the TV. Position the TV outside the car window you want and presto; your car now appears to be moving.

Rules are made to be broken. If you can find a new way to tell your story inside a car, then don’t be held down by these angles. Rent Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and watch the special features. They modified the interior of a car, and the camera operator sat in the middle of the car and had four actors: two in the front and two in the back. Then in a complete 360-degree turn, the operator spun the camera around so each actor had their moment during the pan. This was done with a film camera and not a small compact DSLR camera. Each actor then had to duck as the camera swung around and had only a short time to sit up and get ready before the camera got back around to them. Use the camera’s size and flexibility to find new ways to help you tell your story.

Car Chase

If you are just capturing dialogue in a car, then most of your camera coverage will take place inside the car. For a car chase scene, though, you will have equal or more coverage with the camera outside the car.

1. Lead Car This is also referred to as the picturecar and is the car that will appear on screen. For our purposes, this is the car that has no camera equipment rigged on it while getting coverage for your scene.

2. Chase Car For our purposes, we will call any car that is accompanying the picture car for coverage the chase car. This is the car that will not be seen in the movie but will be the vehicle that you rig in order to follow the cars shown on screen and get coverage while they are moving. In some cases, this car can be seen on screen if you have only two cars and have to switch the rigging from one car to the other if you don’t have a third vehicle. If that is your situation, just think of the chase car as the car that isn’t seen during the filming of that take.

Coverage of the Chase Vehicle

In any good car-chase sequence, you will have one or more cars chasing your picture car. Usually there is some coverage of the people driving those cars, but mostly there is coverage of the vehicles in hot pursuit. It is key that you get the point of view of the pursuit vehicle from the lead picture car. First, you can shoot through the rearview or side mirrors to see the pursuit car. Additionally, you can simply rig the camera in the backseat facing out the back of the car (Figure 15-18). Then, you can get the perspective of how far the pursuit vehicles are behind the lead car and help add the sense of speed if you catch some action such as the chase vehicle coming around a turn or avoiding an obstacle in the road (Figure 15-19).


Figure 15-18: Setting up the tripod and camera to shoot directly out the back window of the car


Figure 15-19: You can see the how close the chase van is getting to the lead vehicle.

Chasing the Lead Picture Vehicle

If you are a fan of action movies, you have seen many chase scenes, and most if not all have the pursuit vehicle closing in on the lead picture vehicle. This is accomplished by rigging a camera on the front of the pursuit car (or on a chase vehicle that won’t appear in the movie) and pointing the camera directly at the lead picture car (Figure 15-20). This allows the pursuit (or chase) car to speed up and get close to the lead picture car and slow down and drift away from the lead car. By mixing this sort of action, you can cut between the pursuit car gaining ground and losing ground throughout the scene.


Figure 15-20: Camera mounted and strapped down on the front of the pursuit vehicle

Coverage from the Sidewalk

In any car chase scene you need to have some static shots that help establish where you are and how fast you are going. Cameras placed on the sidewalk, in a store window, or in any other area along your chase route will help tell your story. Choose strategic places to place your camera that are visually compelling and catch the car either at its top speed or during some movement such as turning or swerving to avoid an object on the road. Just getting shots of cars driving down the street creates no sense of speed or urgency. During the slower parts of the action where there is no movement or obstacle, get coverage of the actors inside the car and close-up shots of the car driving. Then if you use a faster editing pace, you can help keep the speed of the scene nice and fast without having to race down every road you shoot.

Alongside the Vehicle

Another way to get great action shots of both the lead and chase vehicles is to get a van or minivan with sliding side doors. This allows you shoot out the side of a vehicle in relative safety and get close coverage of the cars. Ideally, you should borrow or rent a minivan that has sliding doors on both sides. This allows you to get coverage from both sides and doesn’t limit your shot selection to just one side of the cars.

Looking in the Rearview Mirror

A lot of times it is desirable to get coverage of your driver looking in the rearview mirror (Figure 15-21). You can accomplish this by either having a cameraperson seated in the backseat handholding the camera or having the tripod weighted down with sandbags in the backseat (Figure 15-22).


Figure 15-21: From the backseat, not only can you see the actor’s eyes in the rearview mirror, but you can also see the moving action out the front windshield.


Figure 15-22: Without the actor in place, you can see the placement of the camera in the backseat on the tripod.

Turns and Low Angle of the Wheels Turning

Another great angle is seeing the wheels spinning and turning while driving. You can accomplish this by mounting a sled mount (Figure 15-23) or by using suction cup mounts and anchoring them to the car. Preferably mount the camera as low to the ground as you can without risking it getting damaged. This can really help you capture the speed and motion of the car during the chase. Point the camera at the front wheel (Figure 15-24), and notice how you can clearly see the tire; if you do this on the chase vehicle, you can see the lead car directly out the front (Figure 15-25).


Figure 15-23: Sled mounted on the side of the chase vehicle


Figure 15-24: The camera has been pointed toward the front tire of the vehicle so the movement of the wheel and what the car is chasing can be seen from the road’s-eye view.


Figure 15-25: The tire as seen through the camera lens while the car is parked

Achieving That Cinematic Look: Ramping and Changing Frames per Second

When Canon first announced the 5D Mark II, the only frame rate available to shoot video was 30 frames per second (fps). For filmmakers, 24 fps is the standard for the film look or cinema feel of the moving image. People shooting with DSLR cameras that had only 30 fps as an option had to look at some sort of post-processing technique to get their footage to look more cinematic. The only way to achieve this was to use a conversion process that took the 30 frames in the original footage and mathematically turned those into 24 fps that would play back as if it were shot in 24 fps originally. A software program called Twixtor by RE:Vision (Figure 15-26) allows the editor to speed up or slow down your footage.


Figure 15-26: After you install Twixtor, you can find it in the menu under Effects ⇒ Video Filters ⇒ RE: Vision Plug-ins.

Twixtor works with all major editing programs and most of the motion-graphics tools on the market today. This is the top product if you want to convert footage to a new frame rate from what you originally captured it at. Just be cautioned that this process of converting is very time intensive. Plan on a ratio of one hour of conversion processing time for every one minute of footage. Twixtor works great for creating slow motion (when you did not shoot for slow motion), for converting from your source frame rate to a new frame rate (30p to 24p, and so on), and for speeding up your footage.

Shooting in Slow Motion

Several DSLR cameras now shoot slow motion, with the most common slowest option being 60 fps. This means you can slow down your footage to almost one-third of 24 fps footage and to half-speed at 30 fps footage.

If you shoot slow motion on film, you would choose a frame rate in the range of 48 fps to 120 fps. When shooting at these speeds, the camera requires a faster shutter speed in order to capture sharp enough images to not look blurry. For instance, if you were shooting at 96 fps, you would set your shutter speed to around 1/200 of a second in order to get a sharp, smooth slow-motion shot. If on your DSLR camera you shot at either 24 fps or 30 fps, you would have your shutter most likely set to around 1/50 or 1/60 of a second. At these speeds, faster motion causes blurring, which looks natural when viewed at the recorded speed.

If you want super slow motion (more than is available with the current DSLR cameras), then you should know a trick to improve this problem in post. If you plan on shooting 24 fps and slowing it down to 96 fps in post, then you should artificially set your shutter speed to a higher rate. If you were to use a program such as Twixtor or After Effects in post to create a 96 fps (4× slow motion) sequence, you would want to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/200.

The basic theory here is that you shoot at a normal frame rate, and then in post you slow down the footage by adding more frames—thereby increasing your overall fps for your clip. To compensate for adding the frames, you need to increase your shutter speed in the original footage so that you have as sharp as possible frames so the post-production software has as much detail as possible to create the extra frames. This will give you the best possible final image.

Whatever frame rate you want to slow your footage down to, make sure to double the number and set that as your shutter speed when capturing the footage. For instance, 4× slow motion is 96 fps, and the camera should be set to 1/200 shutter speed. If you want 6× slow motion at 144 fps, then you want to set the camera to 1/300 shutter speed.

The reason for this is that you in essence get the same amount of blurring as a 24 fps sequence. This is because any post-processing that changes normal-speed footage into slow motion is creating new frames and is replicating each pixel when creating the added frames. If you shoot the original-speed footage with a higher shutter speed, you will be better set up for the conversion in post. The converted slow-motion video will result in a nice slow-motion scene, but it will look like the images in the scene smear or blur as if they were shot at regular speed. If you don’t shoot with a higher shutter speed, it is possible that your footage will have too much motion blur, and when you slow down the images in post, the scene will look out of focus or will smear as it plays.

“Rubber Arms” (or the Bending of Images That Shouldn’t Bend That Way)

If you have fast-moving items in your scene, then you need to be aware of the limitations of any post-processing and how certain movements can make it impossible to change the speed of the footage in post. Most programs such as After Effects and Twixtor work by mathematically anticipating where the pixels will be moving to and from in a scene. In a normal scene where someone is walking, Twixtor can handle estimating how far each leg will travel, where it will stop, and so on.

For instance, if you have a girl running through your frame and she abruptly stops and runs back in the direction she came from, you will have problems with this technology slowing down the footage and having it look normal.

What happens is that the programs are estimating where the objects in the scene are moving based on previous frames. Any abnormal or abrupt change of action of an image in the frame can look strange to downright bad. In the case of the girl running, as she enters the frame, she is moving in a normal path that is predictable. However, that changes when she stops and does an about-face. During the stop and about-face, the programs adjust the algorithm to track where she is going. It may take a few frames for the programs to be able to calculate what happened to make the corrections. The problem is that during these few frames the girl stretches or bends unnaturally before returning to a normal pattern as she runs off screen.

If you are planning on shooting normal-speed footage and slowing it down in post, it is a good idea to make sure there is no movement or objects that may not turn out looking natural and force you to be unable to use the footage as planned.

The 180º Rule

When shooting motion-picture film, there was (and is) a physical shutter. This shutter is circular and is most commonly set as a half circle. The shutter spins around and allows light to hit the film, and then when the half of the shutter blocks the light, the camera moves the next frame of film into the gate, and the shutter opens up and exposes the next frame. This process happens 24 times each second, and the 180º shutter is the default shutter angle for most films.

With this said, the physical shutter can be changed to other angles. For instance, you can shoot at a 90º shutter instead of the 180º. By decreasing the angle of the shutter, you need more light to expose your image, and the image is captured with less motion blur. This can be described as a sort of strobing effect. It’s commonly done now in war movies where it helps to freeze the dirt and debris flying through the air and makes the viewing experience feel more intense. So, you can accentuate this hyper-realism or strobing by further decreasing your shutter angle.

DSLR cameras do not have a traditional 180º film shutter but rather a curtain shutter that acts differently from a film shutter, but you can set the shutter “speed,” which is in effect your shutter angle. For instance, if you are shooting at 24 fps, you would want a 180º shutter, which translates into a 1/48 shutter speed. You need to find the closest shutter speed, which in this case would be 1/50. If you wanted to shoot with a 90º shutter, you would need to double your shutter speed from 1/48 to 1/96. Again, on most DSLR cameras, you would set the camera to 1/100.

Each halving of the shutter angle will decrease your f-stop by one full stop. For instance, moving from 1/50 to 1/100, you lose a full stop, and from 1/50 to 1/200, you lose approximately two full stops. So, keep in mind that if you want to shoot at a different shutter angle, you will need to have more light or be willing to increase your ISO to maintain a good exposure for your scene (Table 15-1).

Table 15-1: Converting film shutter angle to DSLR shutter speed

Motion-picture film shutter angle

Shutter speed when shooting at 24 fps

Shutter speed setting on your DSLR

Amount of light loss from a standard 180º shutter








1 full stop




~ 2 full stops